Tiger Woods' swing set for stern test
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The numbers are so impressive, so overwhelming. And used to be so intimidating.
Tiger Woods' record with a 54-hole lead bears repeating if for no other reason than to point out just how often he put himself in the position he's in now at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
His conversion rate is second to only that of a place-kicker, whose chip shots are far easier to convert than the golf version, which requires a deft touch and an entire 18-hole round to complete the job.
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After shooting a 6-under-par 66 on Saturday at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Woods holds a share of the lead with England's Robert Rock, the 61st time worldwide he goes into the final round on top of a leaderboard.
In 52 of the previous 60 instances, Woods came away with the trophy, an astonishing success rate. Just getting into the position itself is worthy of career reverence, let alone the number of times he managed to come away victorious.
But what does it mean now?
Even before personal problems changed everything, Woods had let a 54-hole lead in a major championship slip away to unheralded Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship. Before that, Woods had never failed to win a major when holding at least a share of the third-round lead. All 14 came in that fashion.
Then he fell to Yang, and a bit of invincibility was chipped away.
Woods won twice more that year, including at the Australian Masters, the last time in an official event he had a 54-hole advantage. (He led by 4 shots through three rounds of the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, an unofficial event, but lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell.)
Now he finally finds himself again in that position from which he once seemed automatic.
Woods has gone lower each day at his first tournament of the 2012 season, making just two bogeys in 54 holes and finding a level of consistency in his game that had been missing for so long.
The wayward, off-the-planet golf shots are rare, replaced by the miss in the correct position. The distance control is there, not only finding greens in regulation (46 of 54) but placing the ball in the proper position. Putting was poor Thursday, but Woods had just one 3-putt for the tournament, and it's certainly hard to argue with six birdies Saturday.
"He's hitting it more solid, which is leading to more confidence," said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, who has seen a steady improvement since first working for him at the Frys.com Open in October. "Now I think he's very confident where the ball is going. He's flighting the ball nice, hitting beautiful fairway wood shots. Beautiful bunker shots from the fairway.
"I think the difference is reps and getting more confidence."
Woods has often cited his ability to practice without limitation as the key to any success. He needed time to work on the changes in his swing implemented by coach Sean Foley. And that time was interrupted last summer by injury.
After missing the cut in horrific fashion at the PGA Championship in August, Woods had time to work on his game, and the results since have been impressive. He returned at the Frys.com Open with a T-30 finish, placed third at the Australian Open, had a strong Presidents Cup (despite a misleading 2-3 record), then won the Chevron World Challenge, birdieing the final two holes to win by one.
On Saturday he got past another hurdle, which was poor third-round play when in contention. In nine stroke-play events in 2011, Woods broke 70 just once, at the Frys.com Open, where he was well off the lead.
He had shot 74 during the third round of the Masters and 72 at the Dubai Desert Classic, where he had a chance to win. At the Australian Open, he led after two rounds and shot 75 in Round 3. Even at the Chevron, which he won, there was a third-round 73 to lose the lead.
It was as if Woods' swing wasn't quite up to the scrutiny.
But there were no such issues Saturday. Woods birdied the first hole and added another at the seventh. He failed to birdie either par-5 on the front -- a sore spot for the past few years -- but reached both on the back nine in two and added two other birdies.
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That set up the Sunday situation, the one that finds Woods with a 54-hole lead in an official event for the first time in 26 months, offering another opportunity to put his new swing under duress.
"I tested it at the World Challenge, so that was something," Woods said. "I was in the same position in Australia and ended up finishing third there. Things are progressing in my last few stroke-play events, so it's getting better."
Unlike previous forays into swing changes, Woods said there has been no magic moment when he knew everything was in place. It has come together slowly, over time, as he better began to understand Foley's concepts and put them in place.
The biggest improvement from when he missed the cut by 10 strokes at the PGA Championship has simply been in the amount of practice time.
"Once I was finally able to get the reps in, then things started coming," he said. "My body is remembering these positions."
Aside from McIlroy, who is ranked third in the world and is two strokes behind Woods, his pursuers are not exactly loaded with the kind of big-game credentials that would have Woods concerned.
Of course, they have nothing to lose, either, which was sort of the approach being taken by Rock, a one-time European Tour winner who is ranked 117th in the world.
It was Saturday morning that Rock met Woods for the first time, in the clubhouse before the round, a quick exchange of otherwise meaningless pleasantries.
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"I just want to experience it," said Rock of the opportunity to face Woods and all the craziness that goes with it. "How many chances I'll get to do that, it's not clear. I want to at least say I've done that once. I think it will be all right."
There was a time when Rock or just about any of the other pursuers -- Peter Hanson, Paul Lawrie, Francesco Molinari -- would have been petrified of the prospects. Those days are long gone, however, replaced by the knowledge that others have done it and that Woods himself has experienced his fair share of self- doubt.
Can he overcome it? Will the swing hold up? Is the first significant victory post-scandal to be celebrated in Abu Dhabi, of all places?
And to think we used to take this all for granted.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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